Set against the back drop of the Space Race and the turbulent Civil Rights movement of the 60s, Hidden Figures – based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly – tells the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Three African American women mathematicians whose work was vital to the United States efforts in exploring the stars.
The movie begins with Katherine, Dorothy and Mary heading to work as human computers in “West Computing Group” at Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. Their ability to process complicated equations quickly and efficiently was highly sought after, but their race and gender kept them to being promoted and respected by their peers. The two workplace issues occur together and separately throughout the movie
Each of the ladies worked on different aspects of NASA’s space mission. Mary Jackson worked with the engineering team to strengthen the heat shields on the rockets so they would not fall off during the flights. Dorothy Vaughan learned how to program the IBM main frame computer to do the more advanced calculations required for John Glenn’s mission. Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectory and launch window for Alan Shepard’s space flight. At the completion of the Shepard mission, she was tasked with the trajectory calculations for John Glenn’s flight including how to turn the rockets orbit for the return trip to Earth.
The set design communicates the bleakness of their situation. The offices for the African American women -located on the far side of the base – are artificially lit, dark, cramped and have a dingy appearance. There is no way out of this job for these women, and no way to move into the spacious and well lit offices of the “East Computing Group”, where the white women are situated.
The wardrobe chosen for the lead actresses made sure you knew these women were special, often throughout the movie they are dressed in bright colors, as they stood out in the sea of greys and blacks worn by their white male counterparts.
Ms. Henson, Ms. Spencer and Ms. Monáe’s performances in this film are perfect representations of working women fighting for respect of their gifts in both parts of their lives, in a time when women were expected to be home and black women could not aspire to be more than the help. Their individual performances convey the strength of knowing who they were and what they meant to this program, balanced with the reverence they had to show for the white supervisors.
Supporting actors Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst and Kevin Costner excel as the antagonists, being forced to change their views on race and gender in this engineering-focused workplace. Dunst’s performance surprised me, as it took me half of the film to figure out who was playing the supervisor of the Human Computing pool. It felt as though she disappeared into this role.
The film draws you in from the first scene and keeps your attention throughout. While the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were unknown, the way this film was shot and directed makes it so you forget the parts of history you do know. This film is inspirational, and a must see for everyone, but more importantly for any young lady with an interest in math, science or technology.
5 booster rockets out of 5.
Hidden Figures opens in limited release on December 25, 2016, before a wide opening release on January 6, 2017.